KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A few years ago, casinos across the United States were closing their poker rooms to make space for more popular and lucrative slot machines.
But the improbable triumph in 2003 of a 27-year-old accountant from Tennessee, who beat some of the world's greatest professional players on national television, has sent the nation into a poker frenzy - and casinos looking to cash in have been quick on the draw.
Anybody who watches ESPN probably already knows the story: A man named Chris Moneymaker wins a $40 Texas Hold 'Em poker tournament on the Internet, qualifies to play in the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, then outlasts a colorful cast of characters to win $2.5 million.
"When the World Poker Tour got into television and used technology to show the hole cards, it sparked enormous interest in poker," said Gary Thompson, spokesman for Harrah's Entertainment in Las Vegas. "Americans are very competitive people. You can't compete with Tiger Woods on a golf course, or a heavyweight boxer in the ring, but you can compete at a poker table and knock out a world champion."
Harrah's rode the wave of popularity, buying Binion's Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas earlier this year, and with it, the rights to the World Series of Poker. Thompson said Harrah's, which owns 28 casinos nationwide, recently opened poker rooms at three of its Midwestern casinos. It plans to adds four more at other casinos.
Harrah's has capitalized on Moneymaker's star status by giving poker players around the nation a chance to compete against the former world champion. Moneymaker is scheduled to be at the Kansas City casino on Aug. 22, and recently played at a similar event at the Harrah's in St. Louis.
"Even after I won the tournament, I didn't believe it would do what it's done," said Moneymaker, who four months ago quit his accounting job and made poker his profession. "I had several people tell me I'm going to change the face of poker."
He did more than that: He became the face of poker. Several Harrah's billboards near interstate highways in Kansas City feature up-close pictures of Moneymaker during the penultimate moments of the 2003 tournament.
Harrah's Kansas City casino opened a poker room on July 15, two weeks after the Isle of Capri opened one at its Kansas City property. Both casinos had poker rooms when they opened a decade ago, but Harrah's shut its live poker tables down in June 1998, and Isle of Capri closed its room in 2000.
"In Kansas City, the poker room is packed on weekends, with 100 to 150 people playing, and on a typical weeknight, we have upward of 80 to 100 people," said Tracy Owens, spokesman for Ameristar Casinos, which operates a casino in Kansas City.
There are signs that poker may have staying power.
A Wichita, Kan., company earlier this year created the Amateur Poker League, which provides cards, poker chips, table tops and a uniform scoring system to bars for about $225 a night. Participants get the same amount of chips - for free - and play until one person wins them all.
Shawn Riley, one of the owners of the Amateur Poker League, said there are about 14,000 registered APL players at 150 locations in Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Chicago and California. He said about 150 to 200 new members are added each day.
"We were a little concerned about how this would take off in casino towns like Kansas City," Riley said. "But it's doing very well. It's a good place to practice, and you don't lose your rent."
The bars make more money from increased food and drink sales on nights that typically were slow before the poker was offered.
Similar types of games in other states, though, have faced legal problems.
In Minnesota, a bowling alley offered free poker games in which patrons could win prizes such as hats and T-shirts. But the games were found to be illegal because organizers profited from increased food and drink sales. Bar owners in South Dakota, Connecticut and Wisconsin also were warned that hosting poker games violated state laws.
In all of those cases, businesses were offering the games in response to demand from customers.
"There's a whole new generation of poker players out there," said Phil Maggio, a pit manager at Harrah's in Kansas City. "A lot of them only know about no-limit hold 'em because that's what they see on TV."
Dave Folks, 55, of Kansas City, who was playing an afternoon game of Texas Hold 'Em recently at Harrah's, said he welcomes the new players who think they can win at the casino after watching the game on television.
"Anybody who watches poker on TV and tries to copy how they play is extremely misled," said Folks. "They don't realize that you probably fold 70 percent of your hands if you're a good player."
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